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Old 02-21-2011, 09:38 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default The endless enigma: Emerson, Lake & Palmer reviewed

Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends!



Introduction

The first thing you'll ever learn about these guys is that they were the first 'supergroup' of the proggern hemisphere. Who cares? You have to be above average to get a visa into that district anyway, because if you're not you'll end up in Uriah Heep. The second thing is that they made their living on hyper-fast semi-classical excourses on anything equipped with ivories, preferrably connected to sci-fi modulators (courtesy of Keith Emerson), hyper-fast machine gun drumming on anything equipped with a skin (courtesy of Carl Palmer) and suspiciously mellow folk balladry about anything equipped with a vagina (courtesy of Greg Lake). Every now and then though, they got together around lengthy pieces aspiring to one-up just about any modern classical composer in existence and in the process came up with some of the finest prog epics known to man. You see, this is one band where prog intiation is all but obligatory for anyone to have a decent chance to get into, and I don't really think that anyone with much more humble taste would have that much need for Lake's ballads alone. Not that they are bad or anything, quite the opposite, but we'll get to that in due time.

Anyhoo, they got together as a result of Keith Emerson's, freshly out of The Nice, ambition to expand the boundaries of three-piece bands in 1970. He teamed up with bass player/guitarist/singer Greg Lake, who was right in the midst of recording "In the wake of Poseidon" with King Crimson but decided ELP was a better shot, and drum ace Carl Palmer who was to be found in Atomic Rooster (which you by the way really should check out; Art metal began here and not with Uriah Cheap) as well as being an Arthur Brown graduate. And I'm gonna take the opportunity to debunk a widespread myth here; Hendrix was not considered as a fourth member (which would have yielded the abbreviation "HELP") since Emerson was keen on preserving the trio format from the very beginning, and I've got at least one fairly recent in-depth interview with Carl Palmer in a magazine to back it up. From the very beginning they pulled all the stops on their live performances with Emerson straddling his Hammond organ the same way that Hendrix straddled his guitar, making it scream and moan with feedback and all kinds of unholy noices, occasionally crowning it all with daggers between the keys. Trust me, you gotta see it if you haven't already! What he should be revered for though, is his classically tinged finger-flashing over the whole thing. He could pull out just about anything from his sleeve, from rag-time barroom piano to Bach-fugues at the speed of light. Of course, he had already made a name for himself in The Nice, but it was in ELP it rose to the sky really. And don't forget his toying with all those Moog synthesizers which he actually helped develop with Bob Moog himself at the time.

Obviously the center of attention, but do not forget that he was backed up by one of the finest rythm sections in prog as well. Carl Palmer may not be the fastest drummer in the world, but he sure is the fastest drummer I know of that simultaneously could swing and deliver something more than just robotic noice. After all, he took his inspiration from such giants as Buddy Rich, didn't he? And then Greg Lake, a great bass player in his own rights who on occasion had to switch to guitar to fill in the gaps, and on top of that crowned the songs with one of the best voices in rock. Bombastic but yet humane and delicate. Listen to what he does on tracks like "The great gates of Kiev" and compare it with "The sage" or "Living sin". Talk about versatility! And he was also responsible for the more melodic and accessible elements of ELP's output and all of their albums sports at least one stripped-down acoustic ballad on courtesy of him.

So there, the scene is set. Now what? Full frontal prog that managed to write itself into the history books as one of the most bloated, self-indulgent, escessive and pretentious acts of the whole movement. That's what the critics will tell you wether they like it or not, but that's not the whole picture. They were never strangers to silly little send-ups (or the aforementioned acoustic stuff) either, to spice up the flow on their albums and those who claim that progsters took themselves much too seriously have obviously missed out on songs like "Benny the bouncer". Of course, none of the occasional detours would overshadow their main schtick which was the grandiose epics and Emerson's lengthy keyboard excesses. But that's alright with me, because they are among the greatest epics and keyboard excesses ever captured on magnetic tape. I just don't want you to forget they were much more multi-faceted than they normally get credit for.

As is the case with many prog acts though, their heydays didn't quite survive the post-prog environment and they didn't exactly end it with a bang either towards the end of the decade. They have occasionally reunited to release stuff from the mid-80's and onward but I'm not familiar with that part of their career. Up until the mid-70's though, they were stratospheric and you may lov'em or hate'em but you gotta give'em their due for not giving a damn. Roll up, roll up! See the show!
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Old 02-21-2011, 02:15 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Ah, ELP - such a polarizing band in the progosphere! There is far too much suspicion and even hostility towards them on these boards I feel, so a discography thread is just what MB needs. Your introduction is well written and I'm looking forward to reading your reviews. I am already somewhat familiar with their debut and I absolutely love Tarkus (actually the first prog epic I fell in love with despite not being much of a prog-head at the time) and of course I've given Brain Salad Surgery a few spins, but I'd love a chance to get more familiar with their stuff. With your review thread as my companion, I'll be well suited and ready to to navigate the unknown ELP waters.
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Old 02-21-2011, 04:24 PM   #3 (permalink)
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I could never get into their music, so hopefully your reviews will help me out.

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Old 02-21-2011, 09:10 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Personally, I'm looking forward to the review for Love Beach.
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Old 02-22-2011, 12:06 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Emerson, Lake & Palmer
(Island, Manticore 1970)

1. The Barbarian
2. Take A Pebble
3. Knife-Edge
4. The Three Fates
- Clotho (Royal Festival Hall Organ)
- Lachesis (Piano Solo)
- Atropos (Piano Trio)
5. Tank
6. Lucky Man



If you're aspiring to get into these guys, I would strongly advice you to do so from the very beginning with the recording of their 1970 performance on the Isle of Wight Festival (released in 1997) in order to truly acknowledge just how big, bold, brash and professional they were from the very start. Now, since I've made it a personal rule not to review any live albums, I won't include it here but I may as well give away that it consists of half their debut, a full performance of "Pictures at an exhibition" and a killer version of "Rondo", inherited from The Nice. And it is important to take this performance in account because apart from a warmup gig somewhere, it's their first concert ever (or as the announcer puts it: "their very first debut performance", just as not to understate the fact) which speaks volumes about their braveness. Of course, they were already seasoned musicians but as a unity to throw themselves out in the air with no safety net and into their already fully charged set with such stamina as they did, and at a legendary music festival at that, is something whose equivalence I am yet to see in the music business. I'd go as far as saying that if anything, that very performance effectively landmarked the 70's and you-will-have-to-get-that-album-at-all-costs in order to grasp what these guys were all about! (The cannons have to be seen to be fully appreciated though).

Now, let's talk about this here album. As I said, half of it is to be found on the Isle of Wight setlist, more precisely the first half. It greets you with a swooping fuzzed-out-of-hell bassline and a dissonant organ swirling all around in "The barbarian", heralding the way of something that instantly lets you know that this is gonna be otherworldly. Essentially it's a reworked piece originally penned by Béla Bartók but I don't have much to say about that since I haven't heard the original. This here workout rules though and it was used as a concert opener during the beginning of their career. Past the gruelling intro it transforms into a jolly piano piece that vaguely resembles the aforementioned "Rondo", before finally crashing down where it once begun. Swell! Another hard-hitting track is "Knife edge", once again partly based upon some works of Bach and Leoš Janácek but it's the surprisingly heavy verse parts that make this one a tour de force, with a dead simple, almost Uriah Heep-ish in nature, descending riff upon which Lake weaves his powerful voice. Of course, classical purists will probably wrinkle their nose at this supposed slaughter of classical stuff, but what business do those people have in rock music anyway? I mean, apart from telling you that Beatles aren't as profound as Tchaikovsky?

"The three fates" continues the classical excursion of Emerson, although this time he thought it up himself with the first part being all church organ, the second part being all piano and the third part a jazzy bolero-like shuffle on several pianos. It only goes to show just how skilled this dude is but as listenable music pieces it's not that much to write home about. The same goes for "Tank" in which Palmer at least proves himself worthy of a drum solo spot in contrast to John Bonham (or even worse, Bill Ward) and the surrounding parts ain't half-bad either as Emerson spices things up with a clavinet on ultra-speed. And of course we have the all-time favourite "Lucky man" (no, not that Verve crap, you trendy knit-wit!) that Lake allegedly penned when he was only 12 years old. That's as may be, but it's a nice acoustic breather after all the instrumental onslaughts which it winds up.

However, the real highlight is his other contribution "Take a pebble" which is only a mellotron away from being a bona-fide King Crimson track, only that Crimson would ruin it with oceans of unlistenable drivel and name it "Moonchild". On here though, it's treated with multiple instrumental passages in between the grand and gorgeous verses on courtesy of Lake continuing the equally grand tradition of "Epitaph". Apart from that they manage to squeeze in a fast and dexterious jazz-style interpretation of the verse melody on piano, a light-hearted acoustic country-ish shuffle to lighten things up and a fugue-like piano passage on which the whole band joins in to conclude it all before the final verse kicks in as if to remind you where we were. I tell ya, this track alone makes the album an essential listen and it remained a concert favourite for years to come.

All in all, an essential listen albeit slightly raw and it can't help but leave you with a feeling of underarrangement as a unity. That's not too surprising since it's A) their first and B) mainly built upon their live setting where instrumental show-offs were more essential than actual songcraft. The lengthy piano passages may scare away many an aspiring fan, and to be frank, I myself am not that keen on those parts either. The collective efforts on the other hand, make it well worth the money, especially on the first half of the record. You just have to look past the song-by-song presumption and digest it as a unity consisting of parts rather than actual songs. Or skip it for the time being and proceed to "Tarkus" or "Trilogy".
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Old 03-13-2011, 10:36 PM   #6 (permalink)
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^ Congratulations on an excellent write-up that reminds me of the highlights of an album that I haven`t heard in years. My favourite piece used to be the spiralling synthesizer that erupts out of Lucky Man and closes the album. I still wish that they`d made that section about a million times longer !
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Old 03-14-2011, 04:18 AM   #7 (permalink)
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about to get into them

1st one I'm torrenting is Tarkus
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Old 05-01-2011, 10:49 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Great review. I would say thier s/t debut is the least bombastic of all thier releases. "The Barbarian" has a great bass riff and IMO is reminescent of Uriah Heep/King Crimson and "Knife Edge" could be something from Atomic Rooster with Vincent Crane on keys. "Take A Pebble" is my fav track and showcases all three members working well together. "The Three Fates" is a disappointment for me as I find I'm looking for it to end. "Tank" is pure overkill and what ELP are all about and what I do like about them, in most cases. "Lucky Man" is a fantastic single.

"Tarkus" is definitely the ELP epic. "Trilogy" is a classic. Look forward to your review on Tarkus.
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Old 05-02-2011, 09:52 AM   #9 (permalink)
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Tarkus
(Island, Manticore 1971)

1. Tarkus
- a. Eruption
- b. Stones Of Years
- c. Iconoclast
- d. Mass
- e. Manticore
- f. Battlefield
- g. Aquatarkus
2. Jeremy Bender
3. Bitches Crystal
4. The Only Way (Hymn)
5. Infinite Space (Conclusion)
6. A Time And A Place
7. Are You Ready Eddy?



Their joke album. No, let me finish; well past the master epic on the first side, which probably is when most critics have turned it off in order to head straight into their self-indulgent, sanctimonious, marxist-orientated prog-bashing, writing ELP off as preposterously overblown pomp with no place in the history of rock (hhhh...phew), it serves us with some of ELP's most obvious examples of their self-distance so severly overlooked. You see, upon hearing songs like "Jeremy Bender", "Are you ready, Eddy?" and "Bitches crystal" it's impossible to take them seriously, and not in a so-pretentious-it's-ridiculous kind of way but in a self-assured and sincerely conscious kind of way. It only goes to show that they all are having fun in the studio and not above allowing the results onto the record. Take a song like "Jeremy Bender" for instance, often quoted as commencing the trinity of joke tracks (alongside "The sheriff" and "Benny the bouncer"), on which they simply greet us with some playful lyrics telling the story of a cross-dresser disguising as a nun in order to lay down the other nuns, accompanied by a honky-tonk saloon piano, and it works. It's a joke, and they are well aware it is.

As is "Bitches crystal", continuing the western feel set by "Bender", albeit a bit more dexterious and complicated in structure and it doesn't really account for much musically. Neither do the Deep Purplish "A time and a place", which doesn't even boast much of a melody, although Lake proves himself an amazing singer on that one. "The only way", subtitled "Hymn", seems to strive for being just that at the beginning, although its hymnal purposes seems dubious, especially when consulting the pathetic lyrics, including the infamous line "Why did he lose six million jews?" (not that I'm opposing the condemnation of the holocaust or anything; nazism is bad mmmkay, but there's no need to rub it in my face in such a blatant way). It certainly doesn't convince past the seemingly hymn-like intro when it descends into a jazzy piano shuffle and I'd say that their later adaptation of "Jerusalem" definitely succeeds where "The only way" fails in the strife for sacral atmosphere. And then it's the concluding send-up "Are you ready, Eddy?" which once again is nothing more than just pure fun. I'm definitely not a fan of primitive 50's rock'n roll but this one is more an ample proof that ELP where perfectly capable of throwing a fit of rockabilly if they wanted to, and I don't mind them making fun of the genre by the deliberately sloppy piano playing and the ridiculous lyrics at all. Rockabilly fans would probably mind though, but then again, why would they ever listen to an ELP album anyway?

Of course, none of these casualties matter in the shadow of the gargantuan title track which commences the journey, and if anything, it's by this track alone this album should be judged and remembered. Now, if the rest of the album is more or less a joke, "Tarkus" certainly is not. Armadillo tanks are serious business (as are pink robots)! As any good prog epic, it takes you places, in this case an imaginary battlefield as depicted on the inner sleeve where the tarkus in question is hatched from an egg erupted by a volcano, and commences to battle a manticore and... what are you laughing at? Seriously, however ridiculous one may find the underlying concept (and I don't find it that ridiculous, certainly not any worse than the written-on-yer-nose concept of "Dark side of the moon"), one cannot understate that the main factor with prog and art rock is not the actual story but rather how the story, whatever it may be, is carried forth by the music. So the question is: Does "Tarkus" engage? Yes, it does. It's basically several short songs, or snippets of songs, attached on a musical skeleton loosely built upon a tricky organ theme in 5/4. Legend has it that when Emerson presented the basics for the theme, Lake resented it and threatened to leave the band, which he thankfully did not at the end of the day.

After the first instance of that very theme, complete with synth fanfares ("Eruption"), it crashes into the first real part "Stones of years", delivered by Lake in trusty old King Crimson fashion (even half-quoting the "Talk to the wind" stanza). Even Palmer seems to imitate the somewhat sloppy playing style of Michael Giles here. A brief variation of the main theme ("Iconoclast") before it completely shifts gears and breaks into the hard-rocking "Mass" which once again has a Purplish feel to it; ELP sure rocked harder than people at first might believe. The most catarthic part comes with "Battlefield" with crownes the whole story with yet another Crimsonic vocal melody and a piano-punctuated organ theme which instantly grabs you by the collar, and the soaring guitars say more than any selected David Gilmour solo ever has. If this doesn't convert you, then nothing will. And then there's the bolero-like ending in which they literally march off the battlefield, with all those synths playing along the trampling rythm giving the impression of pure victory. The beast is defeated! (Oh yeah, and they reprise the main theme once again as if to remind you how it all began).

So it's obvious that they spent it all on the title epic, and thus it's next to the only reason for the album's existence, even if I insist that side B, however slight in comparison, still remains a token of their humorous side. But oh, what reason it is! They would rarely match the conceptuality of "Tarkus" ever again. As an album though, I personally think that they managed a more even balance on "Trilogy", but that's a future story. Until then, indulge in armadillo battles!
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Old 05-02-2011, 03:42 PM   #10 (permalink)
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I consider Tarkus to be brilliant and it is certainly one of my all-time favourite prog songs, period. As for side B, I consider it a curiosity and unfortunately, I don't think it's songs are at all flattering for the record and I think it's reputation suffers for it. Starting with the epic "Tarkus" and ending up with some rockabilly crap like "Are You Ready, Eddie?" only cheapens the whole, I think.

You're right that it does showcase a sense of humour, though. I'll give them that!
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